Terracotta Angel, c.1896
Watts Chapel, England

 Photo ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos

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The Centre of the Labyrinth - by Jeff Saward

Roman labyrinth mosaic, Conimbriga, Portugal

 Photos ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos

What lurks at the centre of the labyrinth and how has this symbolism been adapted and employed throughout the labyrinth’s long history?

Hopi “Tápu’at” labyrinth

Tohono O’odham
  “Man in the Maze” basket

Hoysaleshvara temple,
 Halebid, India

Petroglyph, Naquane, Italy

Coin, Knossos, Crete

Mosaic, Conimbriga, Portugal

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In the American Southwest, the labyrinth is an important symbol in the mythology of a number of tribal groups in Northern Mexico, New Mexico and Arizona. Among the Hopi of northern Arizona, it is depicted in two forms. One, the familiar classical labyrinth, symbolizes the Sun Father, the giver of life. The pathway represent the road of life to be followed and the four points where the lines end represent the cardinal points. It is also seen as a plan of the concentric boundaries of their traditional lands, with secret shrines hidden at key points around their circuits. The other form, known as Tápu'at (Mother and Child), has a subtle reconnection of the lines to produce one labyrinth within another, the Mother Earth symbol depicting the unborn child within the womb of its mother and cradled in her arms after birth.

The Tohono O'odham tribe of southern Arizona (formerly known as the Papago) weave baskets from the dried leaves, stems and roots of desert plants, and the labyrinth appears on these as a design known as I’itoi Ki (the House of Iitoi). A small figure representing I’itoi stands at the entrance of the labyrinth. Its significance is explained in the myth of Iitoi, the ancestral founder of the tribe, shunned and killed many times by his descendants, whose spirit now resides at the top of Baboquivari mountain. From time to time Iitoi's spirit, in the form of a small man, would sneak into the villages and cause trouble. Making good his escape, Iitoi would evade his pursuers with all the turns on the track returning to his hidden home. Thus, on the path to the centre of the labyrinth one can see Iitoi and trace the mysterious and bewildering journey leading back to the sacred peak, at the centre of the tribal lands. The Akimel O’odham of central Arizona (formerly known as the Pima) tell a similar tale, but here it is Siuku (or Se-eh-ha) who is depicted, and the labyrinth is a plan of the winding passageways within his home, concealed somewhere in the South Mountains, overlooking modern Phoenix.  

In India, the labyrinth design was said to represent a plan of the walls defending the fabled city of Scimangada, in the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal, which despite their strength, were breached by treachery. Local stories tell  how an aggrieved minister of the King of Scimangada plotted to overthrow the King and revealed the weakest point in the defensive walls of the city to the attacking army of a rival Muslim Emperor, with disastrous consequences for the inhabitants of the city. An inscribed stone, formerly in the palace at Bhaktapur, depicted the city as a classical labyrinth, with forts marked at the terminal ends of the walls, the city at the centre and the point of the fatal breach marked where the four walls cross at the core of the labyrinth.

The appearance of a reference to a labyrinthine design in the early Indian epic, the Mahabharata, is surely responsible for the widespread occurrence of labyrinths throughout the Indian sub-continent. The epic relates that at the battle of Kurukshetra, the magician Drona endeavours to ensure victory for the Kaurava army by devising a troop formation, the Chakra-vyūha (wheel battle formation), that "the gods themselves could not enter." However, Abhimanyu the son of Arjuna, the only other person who knows the plan of Chakra-vyūha and sworn enemy of Drona, joins the fray on the side of the Pandavas. Abhimanyu knows the way in and kills many enemies along the way, to allow the battle to be won, but he never learnt the route out of the labyrinth and was killed at the centre by arrows fired from all sides.

Whether the Chakra-vyūha and the labyrinth symbol were associated from the earliest origins of this story is uncertain, but they are clearly connected by the late 12th or 13th century CE, when two depictions of the Kurukshetra battle were carved on the carved friezes of the Hoysaleshvara and Kedareshvara temples at Halebid in Mysore. Both show an army of warriors arranged in labyrinth form, although the design used in both cases is a modified classical labyrinth with the central section replaced with a spiral - a design variant common in India.

In Europe the labyrinth symbol is widespread and varied in its forms. The earliest prehistoric labyrinths are found carved on rockfaces in Galicia in northwestern Spain and at Val Camonica in northern Italy. Those found in Galicia, dating from the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age (c.2000 BCE?), are often associated with carvings of animals and their meaning is difficult to interpret. An example from Naquane in northern Italy, attributed to the early Iron Age (c.750 BCE?), is surrounded by dancing costumed figures and a long-necked bird. What appears to be a pair of eyes are pecked at the centre of the labyrinth, represented by the pathway that leads to the goal, rather than the usual arrangement of walls. What strange ritual is depicted here? Other examples from Val Camonica are surrounded by armed warriors engaged in battle, either real or ceremonial.

The famous labyrinth decorated coins from Knossos, Crete, minted by the Greeks that traded from here, date from the last three centuries before Christ, with a few further examples issued by Roman emperors during the 1st century CE. Their designs clearly allude to the legendary Labyrinth at Knossos, in the centre of which the Minotaur was imprisoned. The Labyrinth itself, a Minoan palace/temple complex, was destroyed several times during its long history, but was finally abandoned c.1380 BCE. Interestingly, no examples of the labyrinth symbol have been found from the Minoan or Mycenaean periods on Crete, and the direct association of story and symbol may not have been forged until around 300 BCE. Coins issued at Knossos prior to this time are often decorated with representations of the Minotaur and meandering devices symbolic of the labyrinth, but not the actual symbol itself.

The labyrinth symbol was widely used and adapted by the Romans; its geometric form was a popular subject for depiction in mosaic pavements as over sixty known examples attest. They are found throughout the Roman empire from Britain to Cyprus, from Switzerland to north Africa. The designs used are usually quite different from the classical labyrinth, but in fact, a simple development from it. Most, however, were too small to have been walked, and would have provided contemplative exercise only, although it is recorded that the labyrinth pattern was also used as a test of skill for horsemen, marked on the ground and known as the Lusus Troia.

The legend of Theseus and the Minotaur was evidently well known to the Romans; scratched on a pillar of a house at Pompeii, Italy, a town destroyed by an eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, is a graffito of the labyrinth symbol with an inscription reading LABYRINTHUS HIC HABITAT MINOTAURUS - the labyrinth, here lives the Minotaur - possibly, it has been suggested, a reference to the demeanour of the owner of the house! Apart from the coins from Knossos, where the labyrinth is used as a ‘logo,’ undoubtedly in reference to the illustrious history of the town, this inscription from Pompeii is the first-known, direct, written association between the labyrinth symbol and the Minotaur. Similarly, one of the labyrinth floor mosaics excavated at Pompeii, dated to the previous century, depicts the battle between Theseus and the Minotaur at its centre, is probably the first pictorial representation of the myth placed explicitly within a labyrinth. Such depictions of Theseus, the Minotaur, and sometimes the whole panoply of characters associated with the story, are subsequently found in connection with mosaic labyrinths throughout the Roman Empire, usually placed in the central panel. Other times, the story is simply alluded to by a simple bull’s head or depiction of Theseus’ club.

Pavement labyrinths, constructed in coloured stone or tiles and usually between 10 and 42 feet in diameter (3-13 metres), are found in the  medieval churches and cathedrals of France and Italy, although the earliest example of this style dates from the 4th century CE and is found in Algeria. The best known example is the early 13th century labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral, France.

The design of this labyrinth and many of the contemporary labyrinths in Europe is a reworking of the ancient labyrinth design, in which an equal armed cross is emphasized, This Christian form of the labyrinth symbol, which knowingly pre-dated the Christian faith, still retained the mathematical properties of the earlier design and, in a good few cases, still bore a representation of Theseus and the Minotaur at the centre, including the example at Chartres, although the central plaque was removed in 1792.

Although contemporary evidence is scant, it is reputed that these labyrinths were walked as a substitute for long pilgrimages after the enthusiasm of the Crusades had abated, it is known that some were the scene of symbolic games and dances; a game of pelota was played at Easter on the pavement labyrinth in Auxerre Cathedral, for example.

The labyrinth design clearly symbolised the tortuous path that the good Christian followed towards redemption at the end of the road, and also the pattern of Christ's own preordained life and inevitable fate, and in this role they would have served a contemplative purpose, an allegory of medieval Christian life. Of course, children used the labyrinths in a less reverent manner, those at Rheims and St.Omer, France, were destroyed because noisy children playing on the labyrinth were disturbing divine office.

Turf labyrinths, or 'turf mazes' as they are popularly known, were once found throughout Northwestern Europe, particularly in the British Isles, but also in Germany and Southern Scandinavia. They are formed by turf ridges and shallow trenches marking a single pathway which sometimes leads to a small mound at their centre. Most were between 30 and 60 feet (9-18 metres) in diameter and were usually circular, although square and other polygonal examples are known.

Around 50 examples are documented, and others can be inferred by place-name evidence, but only eleven historic examples survive - eight in England and three in Germany - although a few modern replicas of nearby lost examples have recently been constructed. Although mentioned by the Roman writer Pliny in his Natural History, most of those recorded probably date from the late medieval period through to the 19th century, with a particular peak of popularity during the 17th century. Folklore and the scant records that survive suggests that they were a popular feature of village fairs and other festivities, particularly around Easter, Whitsuntide and Mayday. Many are found on village green or commons, often near churches, but sometimes they are sited on hilltops and at other remote sites, possibly hinting at earlier traditional practices involving the labyrinth.

Among the more interesting examples are three that had fully grown trees at their centres, akin to the world tree Yggdrasil. The turf maze in Saffron Walden, England (constructed 1699),  has now lost its central Ash tree, but otherwise survives in good condition; an 18th century document records that young men would gather here and challenge each other to run the maze in record time to reach the young women of the town who would stand on the central mound.

Dances and processions are recorded from the Rad (wheel) in Hanover, Germany; a mature Lime tree stands at its centre, making it one of the most impressive surviving turf labyrinths. Slupsk in Poland formerly possessed an enormous example, 150 feet (45 metres) in diameter, the site of a complex costumed festival administered by the local shoemakers' trade guild. Dancers would tread the 'lapwing step' around its coils, an interesting parallel with the Geranos or 'crane dance' performed by Theseus and Ariadne on Delos after their escape from the Labyrinth of Knossos. Another turf labyrinth with Shoemaker connections, formerly situated at Shrewsbury in England, had a rudimentary face cut into the turf of its central mound. Local tradition asserts that walkers would jump and land with one foot in each eye socket upon reaching the centre.

In Scandinavia stones were used to mark out the walls of the labyrinth; over 500 examples have been recorded. Stone labyrinths are also known from Iceland, Russia and the Baltic countries; they also occur in India, Arizona and in the British Isles. Many of the Scandinavian labyrinths are found close to the coastline, and were certainly built by fishing communities, probably during the late medieval period, when labyrinths were also occasionally painted on the walls of churches in the region.

Some are found far inland, high up in the hills and mountains, or , in association with ancient grave fields. Possibly these examples were connected with Pagan practices, where the labyrinth was seen as the abode of the spirits of the ancestors, or provided a protective interface between the temporal and spiritual realms. The stone labyrinth at Lĺssa, Uppland, Sweden, was constructed at the end of an ancient road built c.815 CE, along which it has been conjectured the dead would be pulled on carts to their burial sites in the cairns and mounds which surround the labyrinth at the south end of the road. Other examples on remote islands around the arctic coastline of Russia are surrounded by stone cairns, containing offerings left by hunters that visited these locations during the summer months.

Although we can only guess at the rituals carried out at these ancient labyrinths, the uses of the coastal labyrinths in Scandinavia are better known. Until the early 20th century, fishing folk would walk the labyrinths before putting to sea to ensure good catches and bring favourable winds - unwelcome weather would become trapped in the circuitous coils of the labyrinth. Likewise, in Finland, the Lapp hunters and shepherds would walk the labyrinths to protect themselves from wolves and wolverines and to entrap the trolls and other evil spirits, who would follow them in, but would be unable to find their own way out... from the centre of the labyrinth.

Jeff Saward, Editor, Caerdroia.

Text & illustrations © Jeff Saward, 2009

Throughout the world there exists a symbol - a series of concentric lines, carefully connected - commonly known as the classical labyrinth. This symbol, and its family of derivatives, has been traced back some 4000 years. It occurs in different cultures, at different points in time, in locations as diverse as Arizona, Iceland, Scandinavia, Crete, Egypt, India and Sumatra. The lines of contact between these widely spaced bursts of labyrinth consciousness are often difficult to trace and its origins remain mysterious.

The mediums employed for its use have been many and varied: a simple symbol described in a mythology, carved on wood or rocks, woven into the design on a blanket or basket, laid out on the ground with water-worn stones on the shoreline, in coloured stone or tiles on the floors of villas, churches and cathedrals, or cut into the living turf on a village green or hilltop - to name a few from the many varieties recorded. Sometimes the design is altered or developed, but more often the symbol of the labyrinth is employed with no significant variation. For the labyrinth symbol is as simple to construct as it appears complex to navigate.

The labyrinth has often been employed as a symbol for the omphalos, the sacred centre or city: Roman mosaic labyrinths surrounded by fortified walls, protecting the centre of the labyrinth and the cities of the Roman Empire; symbolising the pathway leading to the top of Baboquivari, a sacred mountain in Arizona; as a plan of the mythical city of Scimangada in the mountains of Nepal.

Throughout Europe, ancient labyrinths are known as Troy Town, City of Troy or Walls of Troy, the legendary city of the ancient Pagan world, or as Jerusalem or Jericho in a later Christian context. In medieval Europe the labyrinth was used as a symbol of Christian faith, the true path to eternal salvation.

In many cultures the labyrinth has been used as a dancing ground and an arena for ceremony. In northern Europe, young women would stand at the centre, as suitors chased through the windings to seek out a potential bride. The twisting, tortuous paths guarding the central goal from direct penetration were also seen as a trap, an enclosure for the Minotaur of Greek mythology, as well as the home of trickster spirits. It may also have served as an interface between the temporal and spirit realms, a place where the souls of the ancestors were thought to reside, barred from escaping and causing trouble in everyday life by the coils of the labyrinth.

As many stories are told as mythologies exist, but whether in spiritual or secular use, the labyrinth often symbolises the path to be followed, however long and complex, to reach the goal, the object of the quest, at the centre...

Many examples exist, but a selection will provide a sense of how the labyrinth, and particularly the significance of its centre, has been perceived in different cultures throughout its long history.

The true labyrinth has no false pathways or dead ends to confuse those who follow its winding course. Puzzle mazes in gardens, as children's toys or in theme parks are all multicursal - many pathed - to entice and fool the visitor. Instead, the labyrinth consists of a single meandering pathway which leads inexorably from the entrance... to the centre.

Plan of Scimangada,
  Bhaktapur, Nepal

Only the studs remain at the centre of the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth

Theseus fighting the Minotaur,
12th century manuscript, Regensburg, Germany

Turf labyrinth,
Saffron Walden, England

Turf labyrinth,
Hanover, Germany

Turf labyrinth,
Slupsk, Poland

Stone labyrinth,
Visby, Gotland, Sweden

Stone labyrinth,
Zaiatski, Arctic Russia